Be careful who your friends are

At Sam Glover’s behest, I have been experimenting with social networking sites such as Linked In and Facebook. Both sites urge you to find your “friends” and “connections” so that you can expand your network and uncover untold riches (they really are untold).

So you dutifully go about searching for people you know, inviting them to be your friends, and then in turn look at their friends to see who you may know in common. It’s much easier to find friends by looking at other people’s lists than it is to just randomly type in names of people you know (like your buddy Jane Johnson).  If you stick with these sites for a while, you’ll periodically get waves of e-mails of people you know who have just joined and are themselves trying to expand their networks.

For lawyers, creating these on-line friendship circles raises some interesting questions about who should be your friends. For example, do lawyers want their clients to be their “friends?”

From a networking perspective, this could be a great boon to a lawyer’s practice. Become “friends” with your clients (with their permission, of course, because the client may prefer that you keep his or her identify confidential under Rule 1.6 of the Rules of Professional Conduct), and then all of the client’s friends can see who the client’s lawyer is, or provide a prospective client with yet another means of checking you out. Your social network page may even drive clients to your website through a convenient link on the social networking site.

Wait a second. Your clients are going to be your “friends?”

Many lawyers do become friends with some of their clients, particularly after representing them for a number of years.  Lawyers have long also engaged in social outings with clients—meals, sports, theater—to thank them for their business, develop additional business, or simply because they share similar interests and values.

But those social connections do not come easily and the lawyer still has some control over how much personal information is shared with the client.  With social networking sites, particularly Facebook, your “friends” get quite a bit of insight into your personality, interests, family, etc. Even if you don’t use your site to espouse your own political and social views, anyone who can view your site will be able to see “who your friends are,” if you get my drift.

There are all kinds of boundary issues that may come along with inviting clients to be your “friends.” Will your client-friends continue to pay your bills promptly or will they expect you to let them slide a little? Will they expect to be able to communicate with you about their cases outside of ordinary working hours? If your client-friend has a dispute with you, will they hang out that laundry on the social networking site? Few lawyers probably want to mix their personal and professional relationships in this manner.

When lawyers connect with other lawyers through social networking sites, they may not think about the day in the future when they face one of those lawyers as opposing counsel. If your Linked In or Facebook page is available to the public, clients may see that you count the opposition as a “friend” or “connection.”

There is no per se bar on lawyers being friends with opposing counsel, as long as the lawyer reasonably believes that he or she can continue to represent the client without pulling any punches. When a lawyer has lunch with a friend who is also opposing counsel, their lunch isn’t advertised to the entire community.

When a lawyer is connected to opposing counsel through a social networking site, the World Wide Web can see it. Not likely an ethics violation, but perhaps hard to explain to a client.  Many clients are suspicious of the legal system before they hire a lawyer; it is important to think about whether a social networking site is going to interfere with a lawyer’s attempts to earn a client’s trust.

Social networking is an exciting way to stay connected with people you know, reconnect with distant relatives and old flames (oh, wait, maybe you don’t want your spouse to see that you’re reconnecting with an old flame), and get to know new acquaintances better. But there are some potential pitfalls for lawyers. Just be careful who your friends are.

Editor’s note: If you are new to social networking, check out our Facebook 101 post.

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  • Greg

    I don’t use Facebook for anything but fun. I don’t consider it a professional networking site and still think of it as a bunch of college students (which it is) and a site where you can poke, throw food, and do a bunch of other informal connecting.

    Thus, it explains my profile photo (a Lego guy) and the rather nonsensical information I have there. Then again, I’m not seeking clients so don’t worry about clients finding it. Actually, it was there when I was in private practice and I doubt seriously it hurt in any way my chances of attracting a client. At times, I think we take the Twitter, Facebook, MySpace sites way too seriously as attorneys, turning them into ‘marketing’ tools when in fact they are simple outlets for having a bit of fun. I don’t know about you, but I’m not going to lose the fun that exists in keeping my private side goofy and my attorney side professional.

  • Then why did you create a group on Facebook for the Minnesota State Bar Association . . . ? :-)

    It’s hard to keep the line separate between our personal and professional lives. For many occupations, it’s not a big deal. I think lawyers in particular need to think hard about what they want up on the web.

  • Greg

    I forgot about that. Honestly, folks in my office wanted me to put a group up and I was also interested to see what you can do with a group on Facebook. As far as I know, it has very little action, which is not surprising.